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Film Review: The Queen of Versailles

The Queen of Versailles (2012; Directed by Lauren Greenfield)

A remarkable portrait of the heaped symbolic excrement of American capitalist excess, Lauren Greenfield’s mind-boggling documentary of a bloated, self-consuming carnival send-up of the American Dream is often hilarious, sometimes poignant, but always really kind of depressing.

Documenting the struggles of David Siegel (the billionaire founder of Westgate Resorts, the world’s largest privately-held timeshare company) to adapt to the shifted fiscal conditions coming after the 2008 worldwide financial crisis, this film views Siegel and his contracted business empire largely through a domestic lens. The perspective point and titular monarch is his ex-model trophy wife Jackie, a forty-something woman with breast implants, bleached-blond hair, and a botoxed face who simultaneously conforms to the stereotypical assumptions of her social position and subtly undercuts them.

Originally from a firmly lower-middle-class background in Binghampton, New York, Jackie chucked aside a secure-but-drab engineering job at IBM to chase modelling dreams in New York, become a champion beauty queen, and marry the wealthy, twice-divorced Siegel, who is three decades her senior and (in this movie at least) kind of an old-fashioned curmudgeon. Surrounded in their palatial Florida McMansion by their brood of eight largely unsupervised children (the oldest of whom, the sardonic Jonquil, is an adopted niece plucked from harsh circumstances), ethnic-minority domestic employees, and a veritable pack of fluffy, half-feral white dogs, the Siegels live a life of overwhelming conspicuous and wasteful consumption.

Their bubble is slightly punctured by the financial crisis, providing an inside view of how the American 1% have coped to the deprivations in liquid capital that has crippled so many members of the 99%. Used to private jets and chauffeured cars, Jackie must fly commercial and rent a car to visit her old friends in upstate New York (she asks an incredulous Hertz rental car counter attendant what her driver’s name is, a not-entirely-convincing bit of sheltered ignorance). She buys the family’s ludicrous number of Christmas presents at Wal-Mart (a bit of slapstick ensues as the toys are transported into their vehicle and homewards) and is forced to lay off all but a fifth of the staff in their sprawling manse, leading to a predictable deterioration of cleanliness.

David Siegel, meanwhile, struggles with larger property worries. Westgate’s flagship sales and property facility, a shimmering black-glass twin-tower complex in Las Vegas, is threatened with foreclosure, and thousands of his employees lose their jobs. More central to the documentary’s symbolic thrust, however, his enormous new 90, 000 square-foot house modelled on the French royal pleasure palace of the title sits half-completed and, eventually, listed without hope of sale on the real estate market.

The Queen of Versailles lingers on such evocative images of the ornate emulative disease that infects the contemporary American mega-rich. Greenfield flashes a litany of awkward Siegel family photos in matching outfits and monstrously tacky neo-classical painted portraits of the patriarch and his wife in Ancient Roman dress. This note of the visually grotesque extends to their everyday domestic surroundings, landscapes that resemble an evolutionary predecessor of the delusional household decay of the famed Maysles documentary Grey Gardens. As the unfinished white elephant Versailles sits as an empty shell waiting to accommodate the family and its multitudinous possessions, their current home overflows with useless piles of consumer goods, uneaten food, and barely-minded animals (Jackie is horrified to find a pet lizard dead in its terrarium, but one of her sons is surprised to learn that they even own a lizard). The white dogs, in particular, haunt scene after scene like spectral trickster demons, skipping about the ankles of the principle figures in impish mockery like extras in a Hieronymous Bosch panorama of the Apocalypse.

How could this not be a happy domestic partnership?

Greenfield fills out the picture with various peripheral characters in the Siegels’ lives. There’s their Filipino nanny, who has not seen her family back home is almost 20 years and has chosen to live in the children’s former playhouse out back rather than sleep in the madhouse that she must work in every day. We also meet their limo driver, a chastened former millionaire who is now hectored by David Siegel for payment when he borrows the family Rolls Royce to drive for weddings, and the eldest Siegel son, the company founder’s business partner, who is not close to his father at all outside of the office and pumps up his salespeople in a morning meeting by telling them that, by selling vacation timeshares to customers who cannot really afford them, they are “saving lives” like doctors or paramedics.

But David and Jackie dominate the proceedings, though rarely together. Siegel sued the filmmakers for a variety of perceived libelous depictions upon the film’s release, not least of which was making him out to be a crabby work-obsessed tyrant who married Jackie for her aesthetic value and barely loves her, let alone his multiple offspring. One of his first cost-cutting measures is to move the kids from private to public school, and the biggest marital tiff in the film is over the lights being left on in the colossal house he has put them all in. He acknowledges that he derives no strength from his marriage, takes business calls during his son’s baseball games and even on Christmas morning, sequesters himself in a home office surrounded by teetering towers of work papers rather than eat dinner with his family on his own birthday, and practically brags that he helped to rig the 2000 election to give George W. Bush the Presidency. If the man has likable qualities, they are very well-hidden either by Greenfield or by Siegel himself.

The extroverted Jackie, meanwhile, comes across as intermittently predictably clueless and surprisingly grounded. Touched by guilt at the job losses at Westgate and struck by her own need for more funds and less household crap, she opens a cavernous thrift store to sell off the profusion of unneeded goods that the Siegels own, staffing it with laid-off former employees. She gives money to her high-school bosom buddy back home to save her house from foreclosure (though the effort fails). But she also acknowledges that she shops too much, had more kids than they can now comfortably support, and can’t reach out to her crusty unemotional husband. What emerges is a portrait of a modern American woman who is not unintelligent or conceivably self-sufficient, but has chosen instead to rise higher than she otherwise could by her own efforts by virtue of hewing to the worst superficial tropes of indulgent wealth.

The Queen of Versailles is not only rich in surface detail but in multiple levels of metaphoric parable as well. For all of the wide-eyed reactions that the Siegel’s outsized affluence inspires, the story of Westgate’s struggles as told by Greenfield exemplifies the dangerous greed and disingenuousness at the core of the housing bubble in general and the real estate derivative markets in particular, and does so with mirrored complexity that outstrips the didactic demonstrations of a comprehensive documentary on the subject like Inside Job.

Westgate, a corporation whose profits were built directly on the cheap loans prevalent to the housing bubble of the 2000s and whose sales strategy was to market their timeshares at lower-middle-class income families whose means they were distinctly beyond, has trouble finding funds to support their properties and operations due to the collapse largely precipitated by the very tactics that put them on top to start with. Meanwhile, their founder and CEO’s palatial dream home is foreclosed upon and seemingly forever uncompleted as well, a victim of the very contraction that his own practices engendered as well as a monstrous symbol of the unreflective excess underlying them. Although The Queen of Versailles is not without its sympathetic and novelistic human detail, the documentary’s dominant tones are ultimately those of bathos, critical analysis, and schadenfreude.

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Categories: Culture, Film, Reviews

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